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How music on demand is killing the album

To be able to listen to a favorite song, you used to have to buy a whole album. But the rise of digital sales and streaming music has unbundled the single from the rest of the record. What does that mean for the economics of the music industry? Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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    Next: the changing model of the music business, and how it's impacting the work itself.

    The other night, Hari Sreenivasan looked at what streaming has done to artists and the industry financially. Tonight, he's back with a second report, this on how artists, companies and big labels are approaching the whole idea of recording differently.

    It's part of our series we're calling Music on Demand.


    At the turn of the century, music entered a second jukebox era, not because Wurlitzer rolled out a new model, but when Apple launched iTunes, the music player essentially unbundled the album and put the individual song at the center of the musical universe once again.

    Listeners could go back to buying a single song, instead of an entire album.

  • DANIEL GLASS, Glassnote Records:

    So, sort of like the '60s, we're releasing music differently than we were for the last 20 years, where bands are putting out a song here, then an E.P.


    Daniel Glass has helped indie artists such as Mumford & Sons launch their careers, and even though they have won awards like Billboard's album of the year, he sees something new on the horizon for his artists, playlists.


    The drum that is beating in the street that you're following really is a curation of like-minded playlists. So, for example, what are your hobbies? You like to exercise, you like to follow basketball, there's NBA playlists. What do they use to warm up? What do they use to in halftime?


    Take, for example, Lorde, a Grammy Award-winning artist from New Zealand known for her hit song "Royals," among others. In 2012, she released her extended play debut, meaning a few select tracks for free, on a service called SoundCloud.

    With little marketing, her songs found their way to streaming services and on important playlists. Similar to the Billboard charts that once tracked air play on radio stations, the streaming services began adding her song to their list of up-and-coming lists, partly because they could see so many of their listeners adding Lorde to their own playlists.


    Lorde was not hyped. It was playlisted. And people spoke to each other and said, wow. So, the turn-on factor is easier and better.


    Glass also thinks that the shift away from the album, combined with a move toward streaming music, means the creative process could change in ways we have not yet thought of.


    Remixes, having — putting up their stems of their music up online, so people can remix their music, and reciprocal fans say, how about you mix mine, I will mix yours? It's a different experience.


    Ken Parks is North American head of Spotify, one of the largest streaming services in the world.

  • KEN PARKS, Chief Content Officer, Spotify:

    We will see people creating and releasing music in novel ways, releasing, instead of albums, maybe they will release a song a week for 20 weeks.


    He sees the technology creating new opportunities for artists.


    Artists have an unprecedented level of control now. They can — with the tools that are available, they can record a song and within a matter of minutes upload it and connect with millions of people around the globe.


    Artists like Norwegian pop duo Nico & Vinz are taking advantage of what the technology has to offer.

    KAHOULY NICOLAY SEREBA, Nico & Vinz: All these media outlets allows people to be closer to us, anything from Instagram, so, like you said, those small, intimate settings where you're doing shows. It's not like before where you people on these huge stages. And, yes, I feel like we're more close to the fans now than ever before.


    While their fame was built on successful tracks, they still strive for the artistic expression of the album.

    VINCENT DERY, Nico & Vinz: That's always been the thing for us. We really wanted to make a top-to-bottom work of art, in a sense, really try to piece together a story. You know, to us, having singles and songs out are cool, sort of like sound bites of what's to come. But our heart really — we really put our heart into the album.


    Rosanne Cash released her 13th album last year, and isn't ready to abandon that format.

    You still put out albums.




    There's a reason thesis and a through-line a reason why track three is track three and not track seven.


    That's right. In fact, not only did I put out an album this year. I put out a concept album. I mean, how old-fashioned can you get, right?


    Cash realizes few will hear the music in the way she intended.


    I'm pretty active in social media. And when we were sequencing this album, I — we were obsessing about it. We must have done 30 or 40 sequences. And then I just put something on Twitter. And I said, why am I even bothering with this? Nobody listens to albums in sequence anymore.


    The numbers prove that. With album sales dropping, the music industry is trying to make money by streaming a track at a time.

    But for some artists like Cash, the math just doesn't add up. Streaming sales don't come close to replacing what used to be her album income.

    Is there an impact on your creative process? You think, though, the lack of an ability to make a living off of your art would be a strong enough disincentive for you to not pursue that path?


    I think what happens is that you have less time to create your work, because, you know, it's all expensive studio time, and if you have to take off a year to write a record, I mean, you know, not many people can afford to do that. So, yes, it definitely impacts.


    How to make artists like Cash whole again through this transition is the challenge that streaming services face.

    Songza, a streaming service Google bought last summer, thinks the key is to introduce more people to new music they find relevant based on what they're doing at the time.

  • ELIAS ROMAN, Co-Founder, Songza:

    During finals, we have a lot of kids, of — high school students and college students listening to classical for studying. So we exposed sort of a demo that would never search out classical music on their own to it, because we say, we know that you're studying. This is great music for helping you focus without distracting you with lyrics. Try it.

    And people take us up on that.


    The app and service suggest playlists of songs based on the time of day, the activity you're doing or the mood you're in. It's co-founder, Elias Roman, says it's those introductions to new sounds just at the right moment that will lead a listener to an artist.


    Something we all spend a lot of money on, in fact.

    I think when music packaged in a way where it's this essential ingredient to doing all of those things better, it becomes a much more intuitive thing to pay for, for a generation that, per your point, might not think access all by itself is worth paying for.


    And that longer paid relationship between listener and artist is what streaming services and record companies want to be in between. Streaming services increased their revenue by 54 percent in 2014. It seems the industry is convincing listeners to pay for music again, just not albums.

    Hari Sreenivasan in New York City for the PBS NewsHour.

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